WARWICK, R.I. – One woman has blown out birthday cake candles for her dead father. Another gave birth beside a picture of her dead husband. A third still catches herself reaching for the phone to call her dead dad.
The families of 100 people killed in a nightclub fire sparked by a rock band's pyrotechnics heard the club's owners apologize once more at a sentencing hearing Friday, but it hardly covers the grief, even three years later.
"I certainly know saying that I'm sorry isn't enough for people who lost so much," said club co-owner Jeffrey Derderian, who cried while addressing the court. "I wish I could give you back what you lost, but I know I can't."
Relatives of those killed vented their grief and fury and berated the judge at the sentencing hearing, but they couldn't derail a plea deal in which Michael Derderian received four years behind bars and his brother, Jeffrey, got a 10-year suspended sentence and no prison time at all.
Joe Gruttadauria lost his 33-year-old daughter, Pamela, in the fire and found the apologies worthless.
"She's buried and these two guys are going to be walking the earth, breathing the free air and my daughter is still dead," he said. "I'm never going to be able to hug my daughter."
Both brothers pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the Feb. 20, 2003, fire, which quickly engulfed The Station nightclub in West Warwick because the brothers had installed highly flammable foam to ease neighbors' noise concerns. Michael Derderian got the harsher sentence because he bought the foam.
Judge Francis Darigan refused to reconsider the plea deals, which he said would avoid a long, heart-wrenching trial. Victims' families were angry not only over the sentences but because they believed a trial would have told them more about how and why their loved ones died.
"Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she's also deaf," testified Jay McLaughlin, a relative of victims Sandy and Michael Hoogasian. Other family members applauded as he returned to his seat.
Shortly before the judge imposed the sentence, Jeffrey Derderian — a 39-year-old former television reporter who was there that night while a TV cameraman filmed footage for a story on safety in public places — tearfully apologized for the heartache he had caused and recounted the chaotic scene.
"The fire moved so fast. I was scared. I wish I did a better job," he said. "There are many days that I wish I didn't make it out of that building, because if I didn't maybe some of these families would feel better.
"I know you would have liked it if I died too," he added.
As he testified, his brother, 45-year-old Michael Derderian, who had remained largely stoic throughout the proceedings, broke down at the defense table. He composed himself by the time it was his turn to take the stand.
Michael Derderian, making his first public remarks since the fire, also apologized and said he never intended for the fire to happen.
"I fully accept, as business owners, we should not have relied on other people," Michael Derderian said.
"If I had known now what that foam was, we definitely would have done things differently," he said. "We would have never ever put our patrons, our employees, our families and our friends at risk."
Michael Derderian was led from the courtroom in handcuffs. His brother and other family members followed him out of a side door.
David Kane, the father of 18-year-old Nicholas O'Neill, the youngest person killed in the fire, said he believed Jeffrey Derderian's tears were real, but he found Michael too wooden, too distant.
"Michael Derderian sounded like he was reading out of a first-grade reader," Kane said. "And even in his statement, he says we shouldn't have listened to other people — again, trying to slip out of the responsibility. It was unbelievable."
Darigan took responsibility for the plea deal, saying it was in everyone's best interest to avoid the emotion of a trial, which would expose them to the terrible details of how people died and graphic images.
Prosecutors said they objected to the sentences and urged prison time for both men. Defense lawyer Kathleen Hagerty has said prosecutors offered the terms during negotiations.
As the hearing began, the lights were dimmed and a screen flashed the photographs of each of the 100 people who died, while a clerk read their names.
Then, more than two dozen relatives of the dead took the stand to recount how their lives have changed since the nation's fourth-deadliest nightclub fire struck the West Warwick club. Many of them ignored the judge's order not to offer opinions about the legal process and the plea deal.
The fast-moving fire began when pyrotechnics were lit at the start of a show by '80s heavy metal band Great White. Besides the 100 killed, more than 200 people were injured.
Safety investigators have said those at the club that night had 90 seconds to get out before being overcome by fumes, heat and smoke. The bodies of many of those who died were found in piles at the doorways.